Iran: nuclear moment of truth nears

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, November 22, 2012
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Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, (centre) on a 2008 visit to the Natanz uranium enrichment facility

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, (centre) on a 2008 visit to the Natanz uranium enrichment facility

In September, when Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, famously showed the United Nations General Assembly a crude picture of a bomb to highlight Iran’s proximity to nuclear weapons, pundits were struck.

Everyone thought an Israeli pre-emptive strike was imminent. But Mr Netanyahu was suggesting the time-line had been stretched to the late spring of 2013. Speculation mounted about whether he had made a deal with the Obama administration — at the time seeking re-election — to avoid an “October surprise”.

Then it emerged that the changed time-line resulted from delays in Iranian progress, which in turn had been caused by deliberate Iranian actions.

Iran had transformed a considerable quantity of its uranium, enriched at 19.75 per cent, into fuel rods for medical use. By doing so, it had reduced the quantity of uranium it had, which, if further enriched, would produce nuclear-weapons-grade fissile material. This move delayed Iran’s march, evidently, and raised the question: Is Iran signalling a new readiness to compromise?

The release, last week, of the quarterly report, by the International At-omic Energy Agency, puts this notion to rest. Iran’s stockpile has been greatly enhanced. A notable quantity of existing enriched uranium has been enriched further to 19.75 per cent. By the late spring, at this pace, Iran will have more than enough to arm its first weapon. And, more ominously, part of Iran’s slow-down was caused by a decision to transfer and install more centrifuges at its enrichment underground facility of Fordow, a few kilometres outside the holy city of Qom. Given that the facility is being used only for 20 per cent enrichment, one can assume that, once operational, Iran’s enrichment rate will be even faster, putting the Islamic Republic even closer to a nuclear bomb.

However, enriching uranium to weapons grade is not the same as having a bomb — Iran would still have to assemble a weapon and in all likelihood test it. But Israel will not wait that long. For Israel, enrichment is a red line. That is why the next few weeks are critical to stopping Iran from acquiring those weapons while at the same time avoiding a new regional conflagration.

Iran may still be slowed down — the report also offers some insight into the fact that Iran is experiencing technical difficulties. That is good news but hardly a sign of diplomacy’s success. Delays caused by sanctions, sabotage and covert operations are much more important, as they are clear signs that counter-measures are buying time for the West.

Yet, according to the Atomic Agency’s director general, Yukiya Amano, the agency is “verifying the activities at the nuclear sites in Iran” and does not “see any effect” on them from sanctions.

According to Amano: “They are… producing enriched uranium up to five per cent and 20 per cent with a quite constant pace.”

That means that Western policy is faltering and may even unravel. If Iran’s progress continue, the summer of 2013 will be our moment of truth on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies

Last updated: 12:26pm, November 23 2012